Documentary: Paul Simon’s ‘Under African Skies’ 25 Years Later

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at a concert in 1985

Paul Simon - Under African Skies

Watch the entire documentary today on HULU:

It’s undoubtedly one of the best collaborative albums  to come out of Africa and South Africa specifically. As per the documentary, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES begins with Paul Simon’s 2011 emotional journey back to South Africa and the roots of his seminal album Graceland – but it unfolds into a kaleidoscopic portrait of the turbulent birth and ever-shifting life of a work of art.
25 years ago, Simon released Graceland to equal parts acclaim and controversy. The album broke open musical boundaries and brought together diverse cultures, but it split public opinion as Simon was accused of breaking the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa, then a linchpin in the strategy to fight the nation’s intolerable system of apartheid. While the album went on to be widely celebrated for its revolutionary fusion of musical styles, for bringing the extraordinary gifts of under-exposed South African musicians to the fore, and for sparking a brave new musical world of mixes, mash-ups and globe-hopping collaborations to come, the questions Graceland raised in 1986 remain.

What is the role of the artist when society is in upheaval? Who does music belong to? Whose rules, if any, should artists play by? Do cultural collaborations matter? And what will be the legacy of Graceland’s indelible songs in a world that has since been politically, and musically, transformed?

These questions fuel the multi-layered probing of UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, as Berlinger (METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, PARADISE LOST, BROTHER’S KEEPER, CRUDE) captures Simon reuniting with the South African musicians whose work became the heartbeat of Graceland and preparing for a 25th anniversary concert that carries profound meaning for all of them. New insights, old ghosts and the sheer exhilarating joy of raw rehearsals emerge along with revealing interviews with Simon and such musical legends as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney and David Byrne – who measure the breadth of Graceland’s musical, political and cultural impact.”

In article in Rolling stone, this  wonderful analysis of the documentary was made:

Joe Berlinger’s unmissable ‘Under African Skies’ explores how Paul Simon defied a U.N. cultural boycott to work in South Africa during apartheid to record his landmark Graceland album in 1985.

“Simon’s virtuosity, intensified by a 2011 reunion concert with the South African musicians who helped him make history, raises the potent and still relevant question of artistic freedom versus realpolitik. Powered by Simon’s brilliance, ‘Under African Skies’ is a cultural lightning bolt that soars on its music and an unshakable belief in the transcendence of art.” – Rolling Stone Magazine.

Beginning with Paul Simon’s 2011 emotional journey back to South Africa and the roots of  Graceland, ‘Under African Skies’ unfolds into a portrait of the ever-shifting life of a work of art.

Although African music from the beginning was the touchstone of much American rock and pop, Simon’s fusion of American and South African rhythms was something new on the musical landscape. His “Graceland” album, which contained no overt political messages, was nevertheless seen as a political act. As he explains in the film, Simon saw himself as an artist who transcended political restraining orders.

His anti-apartheid opponents, especially the African National Congress and the Artists Against Apartheid, castigated Simon for what at best they termed his naiveté. Although Simon gave credit and compensation to the South African artists, and made overnight stars of groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he was still perceived as a white man freeloading South Africa’s musical heritage for personal gain.

“Under African Skies” features voluminous footage of the original recording sessions in which Simon and the South African musicians are joyously jamming with each other. Berlinger also includes lengthy follow-up rehearsal footage from Simon’s 25th anniversary concert tour in South Africa in 2011.

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at a concert in 1985

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at a concert in 1985


But the soul of the film becomes an impromptu, ultimately stirring, collision: an unanticipated meeting between Simon and the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo, long an outspoken critic of Simon visiting South Africa under apartheid. Each man has his own passionate reasons, and without taking sides, Berlinger allows the audience to see all angles and come to their own conclusions- even as the music triggered indignation and exultation comes to life again.

Both in 1985 and 2011, Simon looks like anything but an exploiter in these sequences. He basks in the South Africans’ riffing and jiving. Their sheer musicality is front and center. If one wipes away the political controversy surrounding “Graceland,” what’s left is the undeniable fact that, at least in the recording studio and on stage, the races were united in the highest of spirits. But, of course, that controversy is integral to this story.

Simon never officially showed any remorse for “Graceland,” but he does so at the end of “Under African Skies,” after a sit-down with his old adversary, Dali Tambo, cofounder of Artists Against Apartheid. He apologizes for any harm he might have caused the anti-apartheid cause, while Tambo, in a conciliatory gesture, admits that the album broke down barriers. They embrace, and the communion seems real.

Berlinger adds many voices to the mix, including those of Paul McCartney, who talks about the long history of white co-option of black sounds; Peter Gabriel, who argues that “Graceland” showed worldwide audiences that there was more to South Africa than suffering; and Oprah Winfrey, who declares “Graceland” her favorite album and a prime reason for her involvement in South African affairs.

Paul Simon and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at a concert in 1985

Berlinger also loads the deck a bit in favor of Simon. He prominently features Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison in such a way as to suggest that “Graceland” was one of the keys that unlocked the cell door.

Berlinger defends his work, saying the film doesn’t smash a particular point of view over the audience’s head . “I think it is interesting that Paul Simon allowed that kind of film to be made. Some people might walk away feeling Paul made the wrong decision 25 years ago, while I think many others might come away feeling it was more complex – that is was worth the controversy to have musicians from opposite worlds finally able to share, as Paul says, ‘the deep truth that artists speak’.”

The world has changed since 1985 and South Africa along with it. What hasn’t changed is the extraordinary music in “Graceland,” which, more than ever, and without any apparent political content, sounds like an anthem of reconciliation.

‘Under African Skies’ is produced by Berlinger, Jon Kamen and Justin Wilkes. (It plays for one week in Los Angeles and New York before being televised on A&E starting May 25. In Australia, it screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival on Friday 8 June, 630pm.)


Rolling Stone Magazine –


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